• Inevitable Rant - Face to Face

Inevitable Rant - Face to Face

My last rant for today (and for a long time, I hope) is another aspect of how the technology, globalization and the mere act of living in the 21st Century affects our personal interactions in the world of commerce.

In early October, when the quince season began, I purchased a few from Snowy Mountain Organics and started chatting with the farmer, Lauren, about how to use them. She immediately told me that Chris, who helps them sell the fruit at the market every week, has used them in his apple pie that won the pie competition the year before. He also happens to be a long-time chef and so modest and generous he shared the recipe for his fool-proof flaky crust with me that very day. And this is just one of many exciting and fun little moments I experience at the market every weekend - from discoveries of new vegetables and recipes, to random acts of kindness towards my autistic daughter (she usually gets pastries for free every week just because she her cheerful attitude and large smiles; I come and pay for it the moment she comes back to me and shows me her loot, even though the bakers always maintain their generosity).

Commerce in general, and markets in particular, have a social role besides merely stocking up on essential, commodities or luxury products. During the summer months, I visit the Farmers' Market regularly to not only fill up the fridge and pantry with fresh produce for the week, but also to meet face to face with the people who grow and/or prepare the food me and my family eat. There is a social aspect to it, that stems from thousands of years ago, ever since people started settling down in villages, growing food and producing items of clothing, tools, art and what have you. Everyone at the Farmers Market know us there now and I know my daughter is safe there, among all the strangers - vendors, West End neighbours, dogs and babies. Suddenly, this mishmash of people actually feels like a community, a rare occasion in the immigrant community of the downtown core, where there is so much disconnect between cultural backgrounds, languages and age barriers, with a strong presence of alienation for the most part.

Just a few blocks away from where the Farmers Market runs, there is Robson Street. What is suppose to be a posh street for fashion and shoe shopping with a few cafes and restaurants, is really not much more than an open mall that happens to be on the city's central street. The only "mom and pop's" owned stores there are the tourist shops selling stuffed Canadian animals, baseball caps, printed t-shirts and umbrellas (all made in factories in China, where else?). When shopping in those places, you are normally greeted by a teen or someone in their early 20's that couldn't care less about anything besides looking trendy and making their minimum wage. Zombie-stares at the merchandise are more encouraged than intelligent chats with the young sales associates (although there are always exceptions, of course; for me shopping here is a little different because it is actually my neighbourhood and by now my daughter and I are friends with most of the teenage SA's in all the clothing and shoe shops - that's where we hang out and do our window shopping on a nearly daily basis, and that's where we get our back-to-school supplies so to speak). For the most part, those who come to these shops, come from the suburbs or on their lunch break, and they come for the label, not the quality or the craftsmanship and definitely not to get to know the people who sell or make the stuff. And no one pretends otherwise. You can come in and go out without doing as much as make eye contact or smile to the direction of the people in the shop. And the sad thing? It's considered completely normal and appropriate behaviour!

Similarly, when people are attending all sorts of "red carpet events" and such, they take for granted that they will get a bunch of things for free and they treat them and the people who give them away with very little respect. I was even lied to upfront when I asked someone if they have received a goody bag (right after they said "no" I noticed they had one right next to them; of course - they did not clue in that I happened to have been not just handing them out, but also hand-rolling the unusually scented truffle that they just stuffed in their mouth). They just sat there, opened the bag, ate the free scented truffles, and threw the rest of the thing away (little gift cards that were attached carefully to each bag of truffles). Out of 100 people that got a goody bag only one person actually came in and used that gift card. The rest hopefully at least bothered to throw it in the recycling bin rather than leave the mess behind like the fine ladies I described earlier. People just stopped thinking about cause and effect or what it takes to put together anything (product, goody bag, event). We have become too used for things to be cheaply assembled off-shore and treat everything like garbage, producing trash and leaving a trail of misery behind us. So of course - no more red-carpet goody bags from me, sorry!

Similarly, my tea parties, a concept that seemed to work for the first year, when everyone were simply blown away by the hospitality and for a while, when it was still among a limited circle of loyal customers, were actually profitable and brought business. A few parties in, the word is spread, and before you know it, some of my guests are, unfortunately just free riders that don't even bother to buy something symbolic to support the people who throw this event. It is true that I throw those parties because I'm really passionate about baking and I love being aromatically creative outside of my studio – i.e. in the kitchen. However, each event like this costs me hundreds of dollars (not even counting the week-long labour in the kitchen, setting up, cleaning the place before and after), and if I don't at least recover my costs, I am sad to say that I won't be able to throw any more tea parties like this in the future without charging very substantial door fee.

From the business aspect, these tea parties are promotional events to make my customers aware that my studio even exists (as I don't have a store-front) and also a forum to educate people about the world of natural perfumery and aromatics, and provide an atmosphere of calm, well-being, engaging conversations and a multi-sensory experience (sight, taste, scent... even the music I choose for my tea parties is carefully chosen). I am not trying to make big bucks here, I'm just trying to survive. And as it turns out, even charging $10 symbolic admission fees is not helping in the matter - it just makes people act more as if they are in a restaurant and need to be served and than they just leave (sometimes without even staying for the presentation - which is as rude as leaving in the middle of a dinner party!).

This would have not happened if it wasn't for us as consumers being so used to big companies. Even big companies are made up of many small people with emotions, feelings and their own life with all the usual problems, as you can quickly learn if you bother to get to know the girl selling you those Levi's jeans at the mall.

And last but not least - is pretty much where we started: the markets and trade shows. One incident is simply engraved in my brain - a young lady who came to my table several times and made a few purchases in the past passed by my table. By than, I already not only recognized her face but also remembered her name. I greeted her, addressing her by her name and she had the most frightened look on her face... She clearly was planning to pass by my table and ignore me (which is totally legitimate, of course). Hearing her name and being greeted with a smile and a friendly hello garnered the reaction most homeless people are probably familiar with when they are begging for money... Seriously!

I'm sorry, folks, but you simply can't go to a fashion market like Portobello West and act as if you are at the mall (even though, admittedly, you shouldn't act like you are at the mall even when you are at the mall - it only contributes to the increasing feeling of alienation in our life (all of us!) and does no-one any good). If you want to browse things aimlessly, why won't you just stay at home and browse the shopping channel? No one will talk to you or bug you with their life story and how they make their products.

When I'm at the markets, I'm not in the face of my customers, I let them browse quietly and at their own pace and how they need ( some are brave and just dive into the rack of testers and sniff away, some read the book with all the fragrance descriptions before they smell a single scent, and some really care only for the chocolates or the poison rings, which is fine too - they are really my gimmicks to lure jewelry lovers and foodies into the magical olfactory world). I observe, watch and listen to their cues. But I also like to greet them with "hello" and "how are you" and a big smile that I try to pull out even when they don't make an eye contact. What is it with eye contact? People seem just frightened from it these days. Most of us (me included) spend way too much time around the computer...

But let me just add, that I'm so very grateful for my customers who do "get it" and for all the meaningful relationships and interactions I have with both my online and face-to-face customers. I'm very fortunate to be able to make a living from what I love doing the most, even if it's challenging at times. And I hope that the world is changing and that people are increasingly putting more thought into how things are made and by whom and treat this planet and its creatures (people included!) with respect and integrity.

And on that note, I'm going to log off and go for a walk on the seawall... A little break from the computer can only do me good ;-)
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